In Crushing the Red Flowers (Ig), a middle grade story set in 1938 Germany, two boys from decidedly different backgrounds discover their common humanity in the most inhumane of eras. Jennifer Voigt Kaplan’s historical story has its own storied past. She initially self-published the novel and, in 2016, was named a finalist for the BookLife Prize Fiction Contest. Author Taran Matharu, the guest judge who selected Crushing the Red Flowers, said, “Never before have I read a piece of fiction that felt so true. This deeply powerful and poignant book is an important addition to world literature.”
Though Crushing the Red Flowers is fictional, Kaplan based the novel on her family’s experiences. “My heritage is half German and half German-Jewish, so I grew up with a multilayered understanding of the challenges that Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Germany faced during World War II,” she says. “The stories I heard from both sides of my family were filled with love and devotion, as well as pain and loss.”
Though Kaplan is aware of many children’s books that take place during WWII, she found that few explore the prewar era. She also struggled to find books that focus specifically on Kristallnacht, a pogrom carried out against Jews by SA paramilitary forces in Nazi Germany in November 1938. Kaplan chose to set the novel in 1938, narrowing its focus to capture a particularly pivotal historical event within the Holocaust. The timeframe also allowed her to approach the atrocities that would come in an age-appropriate but truthful manner. “The year offers a unique vantage point to explore the past and glimpse the future,” she says. “And, by doing this, I was able to provide younger readers with an introduction to the Holocaust without minimizing events or compromising authenticity.”
The book also stands apart from other literature about the Holocaust in that it features a German protagonist. “It’s important for young people to have access to historical fiction with diverse perspectives, so I chose to write the alternating perspectives of two main characters: a German-Jewish boy and a boy in Hitler’s Jungvolk,” Kaplan says.
Kaplan was diligent in her research, contacting historians at Montgomery College in Maryland and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and inspecting visuals archived in the New York Public Library Picture Collection. She also conducted interviews with family members in order to gain a firsthand perspective on the time period. “These interviews became the book’s foundation, informing the plot and supplying original details,” she says.
As Kaplan worked on the book, more and more questions arose. Some related to the timeline of events; others concerned smaller details, such as weather and the kinds of foods that would have been eaten in Germany at that time—topics seemingly insignificant but essential to achieving verisimilitude in her writing. “I believe when an author commits to writing for children, they commit to giving them their best,” she says. “So, even after specific questions were answered, I continued my research to gain a richer sense of German style, interiors, and mood in the 1930s.”
In addition to capturing what life would have been like for her characters, Kaplan says she integrated the relatable themes of “kindness, bullying, and loyalty” to best connect with her young readers. “I hope the novel helps children develop more awareness of their own morality,” she adds.
When it came to finding the right home for Crushing the Red Flowers, Kaplan took a discerning approach. After being named a finalist for the BookLife Prize, she revised the book, with an eye to the suggestions provided in her critic’s report.
Kaplan remained unagented as she shopped the novel around to publishers, and she kept an open mind about publishing platforms. “Rather than thinking about the publishing industry with a rigid line drawn between self- and traditional publishing, I found it more useful to create three categories: self-published, traditionally published by a small press, and traditionally published by a large house,” she says. “What attracted me to Ig Publishing was their impressive list of awards, their willingness to try new strategies, and their previous experience with children’s novels with Jewish content.”
Kaplan acknowledges that her path to publishing Crushing the Red Flowers was a long one. “But,” she says, “as I look back, I appreciate all the varied steps that were necessary to create my novel: collaborating with family, sharpening my craft, establishing relationships, and learning about the industry.”
Equipped with this newfound knowledge, Kaplan is busy writing. Her new projects are more speculative—and pictorial—than historical. “I’ve recently completed a middle grade science fiction novel, and I’m currently writing a picture book, and plotting a new middle grade magical realism novel,” she says. “I love writing for kids and plan to continue!”